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Cutting kids off from the dark web – the solution can only ever be social

The murder of 16-year-old schoolgirl Brianna Ghey has kickstarted a debate around limiting children’s access to the dark web in the UK, with experts highlighting the difficulty in achieving this.

Ciaran Martin, the National Cyber Security Centre’s first CEO and current Oxford University professor, weighed into the discussion on Thursday, saying that there is no single technology-based solution and that there should be a greater focus on the dark web in the country’s schools.

The debate was spun up following an interview with Esther Ghey, mother to Brianna, whose murder by two of her peers, also aged 16, has rocked the UK for the past year. It was revealed in the recent trial of Brianna’s two child killers that one had accessed real-life torture and murder material on the “horror-filled corner of the internet,” as BBC Radio 4 presenter Nick Robinson put it, which raised questions about the accessibility of the dark web for children.

In addition to criticizing the Online Safety Act for not going far enough to protect children, Ghey is also campaigning for social media to be banned on smartphones for those under 16 years of age.

“With this absolutely horrible case in mind, and everyone’s heart must go out to the whole family, I think we would want to look seriously at what can be done,” said Martin, discussing access to the dark web on Thursday’s Today show.

“There are technological limitations. So if you said, for example, ‘just block access to dark web browsers,’ that’s not really possible in the way that the UK internet works because communication service providers – if you’re using one of these things – won’t know what your IP address is.

“So there are technological limitations, but I don’t want to be completely defeatist.”

He went on to highlight the UK’s strict rules around hosting and propagating harmful content online, such as terrorist material, that are already in place.

Just this week, a Runcorn mechanic was sentenced to 16 years in prison for running The Annex child abuse site – an example of the country’s intolerance of this sort of activity.

“Of course, we criminalize the possession of child [sex abuse] images, which are often from the dark web,” Martin added. “But also I think there is a danger in trying to declare that there must be a technological solution to problems that often have a technological aspect, including what technology does to our minds, but they also have a deeply sociological aspect.

“So parents will need to be asking their children if they know what the dark web is and if they’re using it. They could be searching devices for Tor. We educate children in schools about sharing indecent images when they’re underage, we should be educating them about the dark web as well. It’s a really complicated problem with no single tech solution.”

One of the obvious difficulties of limiting access to the dark web for anyone in the UK is the Tor browser, required for accessing corners of the deep web and the dark web.

The fact that it’s also used for benign and legitimate reasons also presents an argument to not limit its availability. Tor and the deep web enables people to anonymously access information and resources unavailable to those who live in authoritarian governments, for example, or those in war-torn countries such as Ukraine.

When it comes to the Online Safety Act, concern remains that one particular passage, section 122 [PDF], allows Ofcom to demand that online service providers scan online communications, which would effectively not allow the implementation of encryption.

Is your kid a little cybercriminal?

The Today show debate comes against the backdrop of concerns among UK authorities about children increasingly engaging in cybercrime.

The National Crime Agency (NCA) issued a call on Thursday for parents and teachers to take a proactive role in educating young people about the dangers of engaging in cybercrime.

The NCA has spent years consistently campaigning to raise awareness of cybercriminal behavior among the younger population. It previously pinpointed 12 to 15-year-old boys as the primary target of education efforts, and noticed the average age of suspects subject to cybercrime investigations was 17.

Now the authority says one in five (20 percent) of children in the UK aged between ten and 16 have demonstrated behavior that would violate the Computer Misuse Act 1990 (CMA). The figure is slightly higher for those who are active gamers, it added, with one in four exhibiting illegal behaviors.

Many children may not be aware of the criminality associated with their actions, especially with low-level offences, but there exists a very real potential for this activity to grow into more serious cybercrime.

For gamers, even buying a skin for their in-game character using their parents’ saved credit card details without consent would be a violation of the CMA. Using off-the-shelf tools to perform DDoS attacks, for example, or accessing a protected server are other common examples of these low-level offenses.

Being found guilty under the CMA can have serious consequences for young offenders that could impact their employability in later life by having a criminal record or being expelled from school, or both.

The NCA is aligned with Martin’s recommendation that the first port of call should be to focus on education from a young age, nurturing a child’s curiosity and skills in positive ways.

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“Many young people are getting involved in cybercrime without realizing that they are breaking the law. Our message to these teenagers is simple – don’t play games with your future,” said Paul Foster, NCA deputy director and head of the National Cyber Crime Unit.

“Whether you engage in this behavior knowingly or without realizing, you are committing an offense – and could face serious consequences for your actions.

“We’d encourage any concerned parents and teachers to speak to young people with an interest in tech, help them understand the dangers, and highlight the many rewarding and varied careers available to them.

“Our Cyber Choices team are here to help children, teachers, and parents with advice and guidance.” ®